Rest for Our Souls

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28–30

For the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said: “You will be delivered by returning and resting; your strength will lie in quiet confidence. But you are not willing.”

Isaiah 30:15

The minimum bar to be enfolded into the embrace of Jesus is simply: open yourself up to him. It is all he needs. Indeed, it is the only thing he works with. Verse 28 of our passage in Matthew 11 tells us explicitly who qualifies for fellowship with Jesus: “all who labor and are heavy laden.” You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come. No payment is required; he says, “I will give you rest.” His rest is gift, not transaction. Whether you are actively working hard to crowbar your life into smoothness (“labor”) or passively finding yourself weighed down by something outside your control (“heavy laden”), Jesus Christ’s desire that you find rest, that you come in out of the storm, outstrips even your own.

Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (2020)

My wife gave me a gift this week. You see, she is a teacher who, because of the current COVID lockdown in our province, has to prepare online lessons. She goes to her school to do this. And so our twin sons and daughter have all been doing school online from home. Most weeks she takes the boys with her on a couple of days.

But one day this week, when normally both boys would go with her, one of them wasn’t feeling well. So he stayed home.

So on another day this week, she took our sons with her one morning so I could have time to myself and get some of my work done. I needed it.

And you know what? For a part of that time I sat in our living room rocking chair, did the Daily Office, prayed, read my Bible, and just sat in God’s presence. Quiet. Still. Restful.

What is rest?

If I have a very busy day or week, perhaps busier than usual, chances are I’ll need physical rest. After a hard day’s work, most of us look forward to crawling into bed. A good night’s sleep is a cure for many things.

But we need more than physical rest.

I can also find myself emotionally drained. Maybe I’ve had to deal with a difficult relationship. We all know what it’s like to have a conversation that leaves us feeling wiped. Afterwards, all we want is to rest.

And Jesus invites us to rest. More specifically, he invites us to find rest for our souls in him. And our souls are the heart of who we are. You and I are embodied souls.

While I’m sure it means much more, sometimes receiving rest for our souls means being able to rest from ourselves: our cares, worries, burdens, fears, anxieties, hopes, expectations, disappointments, and failures.

What burdens are you carrying?

What cares are you shouldering?

What’s weighing you down? What’s weighing on you?

Jesus invites you to come to him. To let him unburden you, take the weight off your shoulders, to give you rest for your soul.

But it’s an invitation. Jesus never forces or coerces.

To the church at Laodicea, (Revelation 3:20) believers who had become lukewarm in their relationship to Jesus, he says, See! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

But according to the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites—God’s very own covenant people—refused this rest. Refused him.

We do too.

So often we think life, wholeness, contentment, and peace are up to us. That it’s our effort, our strength, our capabilities that will save us.

You see, Jesus gives us rest by giving us himself. His invitation is a gospel invitation. To come in and dine with us—to share table fellowship—is a sign of intimacy and relationship.

In other words, it’s Jesus’ presence that gives us rest. Him. The rest he offers is not separate from him. He is that rest.

This current COVID lockdown seems especially tiring for some reason. Perhaps it’s the cumulative effect. It’s been a long year for many of us.

Yet the rest Jesus offers—indeed, is—is available no matter what else is going on. Circumstances can’t dictate what Jesus can do—who he is, what he offers, what he provides. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Jesus is knocking on my door. He’s also knocking on yours. Rest is possible. We only have to open the door and let the author of rest in.

The Work of Grace

O Gracious God, by your Son, Jesus Christ, you call us forth from sin and into the baptism of new life. Help us work out our salvation with the fear and trembling necessary for any genuine disciple. Forgive us when we imagine you are done with your re-creative work in us.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

None of is done growing. God has more to do in us. But spiritual growth isn’t always easy. We have to be willing to enter into the process, become more self-aware, and be ready to do some hard work. As the late Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Indeed, the above prayer draws on Philippians 2:12, where Paul says: “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

For me, the last four or so years have been among the most significant of my life with respect to growing spiritually. Not because I have finally made it. Not at all. Instead, I would say that how I see the spiritual life has shifted in important ways. I have had a big change of perspective. But entering this process has meant being willing at times to deal with corners of my heart and aspects of my past that are painful to look at.

And it’s still true. Even now, there are areas of my life that need profound change. And what needs to change in the present is rooted deeply in my upbringing. Lifelong negative habits are often borne of emotional and psychological attempts to cope with other things. Who we are in the present, including the not so good stuff, is the end result of our personal history. This same stuff–habits, traits, proclivities, fears–is what God wants to go to work healing and restoring.

As a result, facing these habits, these things that need to change, can be very hard. It’s never only about the exercise of willpower. Though effort is needed. We also need to recognize that these things are spiritual. Because everything about our lives, especially as it pertains to how we relate to others and even to ourselves, is spiritual. Spiritual in the sense of having to do with the deepest part of ourselves, that image of God-ness, who God has made us to be. Spiritual in the sense of being re-made into the image of Jesus. Spiritual in the sense of needing to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Spiritual in the sense of realizing that long before we began the hard journey home, our heavenly Father saw us from a distance and began running towards us, arms outstretched for an embrace.

In one sense, we go on that journey again and again. As soon as we find ourselves confronting another element of our painful past, or whatever it is that keeps us from being more fully ourselves or from growing, we need to learn to receive the Father’s love that much more fully. Because it’s his love, fully revealed in the person of Christ, that transforms and redeems us.

The question is always: Are we willing to let God into that space, into those painful areas of our lives? What’s more painful, the redemptive process of God doing his work in us or staying exactly where we are and allowing the guilt, fear, and shame have its way with us? Either way, life is going to be painful at times, at some level. But we have to choose our pain.

I’m facing a choice along those lines right now. I don’t even know exactly how to go about it. It’s an area of my life that I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. And while I know perfectly well that the pain of remaining as I am is much less desirable, making the effort again to change, perhaps at a deeper level, is not a prospect I necessarily welcome.

Part of God’s work of grace, I think, involves freeing us from all the baggage, the past hurts, that define how we deal with life in the present. He wants to break the chains that hold us back from experiencing the new life in Christ he offers. The spiritual life–life lived in the presence of God through Christ in the power of the Spirit–is not about holding on until we get to heaven, about just waiting until Jesus returns. No, it’s about the power of God at work in our lives in the present. Here. Now. It’s not an easy or comfortable process. There is some fear and trembling involved. But I’ve come far enough to know that the process is worth it. That God shows up in grace and love. And if I am going to keep growing, which he calls me to do, it’s knowing this that makes continuing this process possible. Not only for me, but also for you.

Douglas Murray and the Need for Forgiveness in a Culture Where It Seems Impossible

I’ve been reading Douglas Murray’s excellent book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. Before the final section of the book, he has an interlude with the title, “On Forgiveness.” Given what some call the “Cancel Culture,” which seeks to punish people interminably for real or perceived misdeeds or mistakes, his words are particularly striking and even convicting. And this from a thinker who is ostensibly not religious. Is he not right that perhaps learning to forgive is the only way out of our present cultural morass? Alas, while I appreciate his words, as a Christian it is difficult for me to see both a motivation, basis, or power for forgiveness apart from the reconciling work of the cross and the power of the good news. Yet maybe someone like Murray can at least draw our attention to the matter at hand. He’s raising some important questions here while offering interesting historical analysis. This is how he puts it:

The consensus for centuries was that only God could forgive the ultimate sins. But on a day to-day level the Christian tradition, among others, also stressed the desirability–if not the necessity–of forgiveness. Even to the point of infinite forgiveness. As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered. Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity

What I Don’t Know and What I Do Know

Are churches that refuse to abide by COVID guidelines making the right decision or the wrong decision?

I don’t know.

Are government authorities who fence in a church building or issue large fines for such refusals exercising power illegitimately? Are they violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by their actions?

I don’t know.

Is this really an issue of religious freedom or is it confusing such freedom with the traditional means of exercising our religious freedom?

I don’t know.

How do we know for sure when such freedoms are being unfairly restricted or even violated?

I don’t know.

Should the same guidelines exist for all situations and places and organizations?

I don’t know.

However, what I do know is that at a time like this there aren’t easy answers.

What I do know is that many government authorities are doing their best to protect citizens. What I do know is that not all governing authorities are the same–from province to province or state to state. We can’t equate what’s happening, for example, in the US or some parts of the US and look at our situation here in Nova Scotia through that lens with accuracy. What I do know is that there are examples of COVID restrictions that seem inconsistent, confusing, or applied unfairly. What I do know is that there are plenty of people acting in good faith, in churches and in the government, who are not on the same page.

What I do know is that followers of Jesus and churches are called to obey governing authorities unless they are telling us to disobey God. What I do know is that being able to protect and have religious freedom is important in a free society. What I do know is that it’s not always clear in this situation what it means to obey or disobey God’s word. What I do know is that Christians ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love our neighbors. What I do know is whatever we do as disciples of Christ and as communities of faith will be our witness to our neighbors.

What I do know is that many of us are quick to give our opinions and slow to listen. What I do know is that people on all sides of an issue can get emotional, frustrated, and argumentative. What I do know is that all that’s going on in our culture right now is leading to division, polarization, and disunity. What I do know is that we often end up in echo chambers where all we hear is what we already agree with. What I do know is that social media platforms such as Facebook drive us apart more than bring us together. What I do know is that none of this is good for any of us.

But most importantly, what I do know is that the God in whom I believe is the Creator of each one of us. What I do know is that he calls us to love one another, even when we profoundly disagree. What I do know is that being a follower of Jesus involves laying down our lives, carrying our crosses, and sacrificing our desires for the sake of others. What I do know is that even those of us who are Christians don’t always want to do this or are willing to do this. What I do know is that we–including Christians–need the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, and the gospel of Jesus more than ever. What I do know is that without it we have no hope, no peace, and no way forward as we live in this difficult and confusing time.

Having a Christian Witness in a COVID World

I rarely get sick. And thankfully, if I were to catch a common cold, it’s unlikely to become a divisive political matter. No one would contest the reality of the symptoms. Nor would anyone argue vehemently with me over the efficacy of Kleenex, rest, and over the counter cold medications. There would be no one telling me I shouldn’t cover my mouth when I cough. Instead, most people would accept and support my efforts to get better and to keep others from catching the cold from me.

Then there’s COVID. And all of a sudden, taking precautionary measures leads to polarized arguments on social media, debates about government power and overreach, protests against masks, and, worst of all, division in churches. In churches.

Now, let me be clear. When I say division, I do not mean differences of opinion on all things COVID. Nor do I mean people who opt not to attend church because of their particular convictions or concerns. Instead, I mean the breakdown of communication and relationships. I mean one group of people in a church being unhappy, angry with, or resentful of another group of people in a church. I mean the kinds of situations that tie pastors in knots, because there is no helpful solution that smoothes over everyone’s concerns and makes all parties happy. Worse, I mean people who confess Christ as Saviour and Lord but whose handling of COVID restrictions puts them in the position of acting unbiblically towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let me explain.

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses an issue we will never specifically face in our day: whether or not believers should eat food that has been offered to idols in pagan temples. Many Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Some of them couldn’t in good conscience eat such meat because of its association with pagan worship. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

About eating food sacrificed to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.

However, not everyone has this knowledge. Some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food sacrificed to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? So the weak person, the brother or sister for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. Now when you sin like this against brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:4-13

Notice how Paul clearly says that Christians are free to eat such meat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. There’s nothing special about this meat. And, besides, idols are simply idols. They are not divine beings of any sort. At the same time, though believers are free to consume this meat, Paul also tells them to be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. Going further, he says that if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

So Paul’s concern is that our actions as believers do not cause others to stumble in their faith. To this end, he says we ought to be willing to put our freedom aside in order to prevent others from stumbling. In other words, it is not Christlike to assert our rights when the well-being of the body of Christ is at stake. Indeed, following Jesus involves sacrifice, putting others’ needs ahead of our own, and loving our neighbour even when it costs us.

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly talks about not making use of his rights as an apostle. Speaking of his rights as an apostle, he says of himself and his co-workers that we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ.

Once again, the emphasis here is on not asserting one’s rights. And this is for the sake of the gospel. Note again: asserting our rights as Christians can, at times, be a hindrance to the gospel and not an expression of it.

And with all due respect to believers who feel strongly about COVID restrictions, remember that it is not a gospel issue. What we believe or don’t believe about COVID isn’t a matter of Christian orthodoxy, theological correctness, or biblical faithfulness. It’s not a salvation issue. Even if someone truly thinks that these government-mandated guidelines are the beginning of a slippery slope to even more government overreach and abuse of power, being asked to socially distance and wear masks doesn’t even come close to being asked to deny your faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t qualify as persecution. Asserting otherwise is an insult to the many around the world in other nations who suffer and die daily for confessing faith in Christ.

And when we talk about setting aside our rights for the sake of the gospel, I think we can unpack this in a few ways.

First, of all Christian unity and peace in the body of Christ is a gospel issue. The relationships between people in churches is a gospel issue. It actually matters whether or not we are willing to put others’ needs ahead of ours. It actually matters whether or not we prioritize our relationships with other believers over our convictions on secondary or even tertiary issues. It actually matters whether or not we find spiritually healthy ways to deal with tension and conflict in our churches. Consider more words from the apostle Paul:

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

Notice how Paul explicitly connects unity and peace in the body of Christ with the work of the Spirit, with our baptismal confession, and with very nature of our trinitarian God. The way in which we handle these sorts of matters relationally in the body of Christ matters because it is part of our witness to our larger communities. Our relationships with one another ought to reflect our deeper, primary convictions about the nature of God. We do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

Frankly, how you get along with fellow believers and how you are growing into a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy follower of Jesus is significantly more important than your view of masks and social distancing.

Not only that, our unity as believers is so important and so intimately connected with the witness of the church in the world that Jesus–to whom we confess our allegiance–prayed for it.

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

Why does Jesus pray for unity among his followers? He prays for this so that, as he says, the world may know you have sent me. Others coming to faith in Jesus, knowing he was sent into the world by God the Father, depends in some measure on the unity of the church. It’s a matter of Christian witness.

So, secondly, our witness is also a gospel issue. Our relationships in the church demonstrate what we believe about God and the good news of Jesus. When there is discord in the body of Christ over secondary issues, it’s a stain on the witness of the church to the wider world.

All of this is to say, if you are a follower of Jesus, are you thinking through the way in which you express and live out your convictions on secondary or tertiary issues? Are you thinking through how you are affecting your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the witness of the church in your neighbourhood? What does your manner of living out these particular convictions say about God, the good news, and the church?

For example, if you are on Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think (and even pray?) before you type and post? I really think that the kind of disembodied communication that takes place on social media, absent of personal presence and actual relational accountability, gives many permission to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. Not only that, I think many use technology as a way of actually avoiding real human interaction that they would find uncomfortable or awkward or that would potentially challenge their assumptions. Rather than another, healthy way of engaging others and ideas, instead it’s a way of sidestepping the more difficult, but essential work of relationships. Often there is no conversation per se. Instead, people talk past one another without ever stopping long enough to listen.

It goes without saying that those who confess to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus should model another way. We should be voices of humility, peace, and calm. We need to be aware of the degree to which we can mistakenly allow the medium of social media dictate how we express our beliefs and interact with others. We ought to demonstrate what it means to have unity even when we disagree on secondary or tertiary matters. We should show through our relationships that the gospel of Jesus is our priority.

After all this, I should also make clear that I am not asking anyone to violate their conscience. If a Christian believer has a particular conviction with respect to COVID restrictions, and it’s a matter of conscience, my suggestion is that they follow their conscience. Hopefully, what I’ve said above makes clear that it’s the manner of following one’s convictions on this matter that is crucial. How are you relating to others who view matters differently? Are you seeking to encourage fellow Christians, even if you disagree?

As it happens, how we do this is also a part of our witness and therefore a gospel issue. And whatever else we make of COVID and all the restrictions that our governing authorities are currently requiring us to follow, those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus need to prioritize the witness of the gospel, of which our relationships with one another in the church are a fundamental part.